Interview: Cirith Ungol
There is a place where “Exciter” plays through to “Heroes End”, and the great I AM always flips the plate. You'll find it between the Pacific and a cross topped mountain, just an hour and a half’s train ride north of Burbank. In this place, foul memories of groove, core, and nü are crushed by the True, and for the second year in a row; Ventura, California brought the world Frost and Fire Fest.
Hosted by Ventura’s own defenders of the faith, Night Demon, the three day fest celebrates all that is real in metal, with gauntlet’d fists flipping bird to the false. Turnout for this year’s event eclipsed last year’s, and the reason is simple: Cirith Ungol have returned.
Before Dickinson sewed himself into the spandex, and long before Scandinavia got a hold of Tolkien’s lexicon, there was Cirith Ungol. “Metal” on our side of the ocean had yet to find a signature sound, and the group focused disparate hard rock, fantasy and neoclassical elements into something alien yet entirely metallic. Their approach was more in step with 60’s rock exploration than the 80’s linear run n’ gun.
After four classic albums, and many perils in the underworld known as “The Music Business,” the great Cirith Ungol, reduced by their battles, returned to the soil that had birthed them in ‘92. Their final show in their hometown was attended by less than 50 fans. Throughout the following decades, the members would grant interviews, always proclaiming that a return was impossible.
But in early October of 2016, the impossible became reality. With the banner of Ungol proudly unfurled; the original prophets of American Metal Magick took the stage at Ventura’s Majestic Theater, playing to a sold out crowd of 900. Their performance laid to waste any worries of atrophied skills, and it was apparent the group had more in mind than a one-off. The Monday after the fest, when Ventura picked up the smoldering pieces of itself, the Mayor officially named October 10th “Cirith Ungol Day.”
I was fortunate enough to talk with vocalist Tim Baker, drummer Robert Garven, and Frost & Fire organizer and new bassist, Jarvis Leatherby, also of Night Demon, about the band’s triumphant return.
How did it feel when that curtain ripped back and you saw the crowd at Frost and Fire?
Tim Baker: Well, after I went and changed my underwear it was… nah, I'm kidding. It was great. We've been practicing hard for the last year so we were ready to do it. But it was still stunning and pretty strange after all this time and all the sudden the lights go on and you're actually doing it. It was fantastic, actually.
Robert Garven: I couldn't believe I quit playing drums for so long and when I started playing again I was so excited. After being on a big stage for the first time, some of our fans that called me and emailed me said they were in tears and I don't think I was in tears...
Baker: You were crying!
Garven: Oh, no no no no no! But being in a giant room with a big sound system, I really thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.
Were you surprised at the size of the crowd?
Baker: We’re all over social media, so we kinda had a good idea of how many people were gonna be there but it was a lot. I'm sure you've seen the videos of the last time we played there in 92... was a little bit different than that. It was really an honor that people showed up from all over the world, actually. Everywhere you could think of. We met people over three days from all parts of the globe and it was really stunning.
Garven: During the signing session there was this guy from Russia, and a guy from Beijing, China. Both of them said they're leaving the next day. I couldn't imagine flying from Russia, and staying here three days and then flying home.
But you guys are definitely worth that to quite a few people.
Garven: It amazed us. There's a few fans here in town, but Ventura is like a laid-back coastal city. I think that's why it's such a great venue for this show. At Keep It True Festival, in Germany, you have all these fans that are already there. Here, when all the fans come to town they don't have other local fans they have to push out of the way because there's only like 100 local fans.
Baker: It’s like a general invasion. The only thing really metal here is Cirith Ungol and Night Demon, and there might be a couple other things. It's a small scene here, it's a great honor for everybody to come here and come to the festival, it wasn't just us. Jarvis puts on a great show and there was a lot of people last year too so it's going to be a yearly thing and hopeful everyone will come back every year.
I've read many testimonies in past interviews with the band stating the near impossibility of a reunion. In what ways did the stars align and make this possible?
Baker: Well, it's kind of been an ongoing battle, especially when Jarvis and Rob were in contact the last couple of years. Jarvis always said “you guys should get back together!” Oliver from Keep It True fest, we've been friends online for a number of years and he's always invited us over. and we've always politely declined because we weren't really into doing anything as a band at that time. We finally decided to go over to Germany, with Oliver's request. Rob and I went over there last year to Keep It True, and it was really an eye opening experience. It was just really incredible the amount of people that were there that love the band and supported us all these years. [Oliver] came over to Frost and Fire, and we had a big pow-wow with him and Jarvis and laid the groundwork for maybe trying to get back together and see what would happen and we finally did that. We got together at the Night Demon space and practiced and Rob went down there and beat on their drums to see how it would feel and everything and things just kind of took off from there. We got a practice place, got equipment again, and started practicing again and it just kind of steamrolled from there. It took a year to get all that done and we played Frost and Fire, so we're looking forward to the future and what's going to happen next.
Garven: What really happened was Oliver for the last 10 years has been emailing me saying "Rob you should really get your band back together" and I'm like "Nope,” and he's all like "People love you!" and I just swore I'd never touch another drumstick as long as there's scumbags in the music business. Because I was so depressed over the fallout of our last album. A lot of people are saying because we re-released Paradise Lost “didn’t you hate the album?” and no I never did. I'm friends with the producer again, it wasn't any of that it was just like everything that came together, the whole hair metal scene in LA, a couple guys leaving the band, we got dropped by the record company, a lot of stuff kind of came to a head. When me and Tim broke up, I had a lot of bad feelings and I really didn't ever wanna repeat that. A good friend of Jarvis' and mine, Carl Valdez, a guy I worked with, he kept going "Hey man you gotta talk to my friend Jarvis cuz he's always touring Europe and everyone loves your band over there" so I met Jarvis and he kept asking me and I'm like "Nope, nope, nope"... but when he put on his Frost and Fire festival last year, I think we had a meet and greet there, and once again there's like 400 people from all over the world, "Hey I came from Greece." "I came from France." "I came from Germany." "I came from Argentina." "I came from Spain." It shocked us and amazed us, to be honest. Oliver sat down and talked to us and was like “wanna come over and check out Keep It True?”
He also kind of floated the possibility that if we got back together we could play one of his shows in Europe. So that actually got us thinking, “hey you know this is something to do.” I read an old review somewhere with a guy saying we got back together because “the price was right,” or this or that. I want to dispel that totally. The main reason we got back together is because a lot of us were getting a bit older in years and the thing was that if we don't do it now, we're never gonna do it, and all of us are healthy and we still have a lot of energy.
Baker: And nobody gets into metal for money, man. That’s a joke.
Garven: For the last 25 years I've had dreams about 3 or 4 times a week. In the dream I'm buying a new drum set, or recording an album, or the bands getting back together. I actually love mechanical stuff, and I miss playing drums so much, and I miss all the cymbals and all the little screws, and the nuts and the bolts. It was a time for me to actually reflect on why I quit. I think I quit for all the wrong reasons. I loved playing drums and I wanted to play music my whole life, that was my main goal in life and the reason I gave it up wasn't really because I wanted to, and I think me and Tim talked about it.
Baker: There were just circumstances. But it worked out the way it did for the best, we're back together now and stronger than ever, and we're looking forward to push onto the future.
Garven: The amazing thing also too is that most of the fans [now] are 30 and under, and they really like us for the music. To me that says everything. We were struggling through those hair band days, and a lot of the bands that made it were actually famous before an album was even put out because of so much hype from the record companies and radio stations and everything. I think people listen to our music and like the music for itself, and that gives me immense satisfaction.
With a lot of bands that haven't played in so long there's this fear that if you do a reunion you might tarnish the idea that people have of the band. How do you feel about the reunion, do you feel you lived up to fans’ expectations?
Baker: That's no reason to discourage anything if you really have the urge and desire to get back together and do it for the right reasons. How big of a legacy could we actually have? We are what we are. We were what we were. Let's hope people enjoy what they saw the other night, because we're working hard to give people a good representation of the band. I think we probably did that the other night, so it should be good going forward. As far as the legacy thing goes, it is what it is and people either love us or hate us, and nothing’s going to change that. We're just looking forward to carrying on and getting out there.
Garven: Plus the whole tarnish thing? I did a lot of interviews after the band broke up because I wanted to actually keep the memories of the band alive even though the band wasn't playing and in almost every one of those interviews I gave out a bullshit excuse because I didn't want to play again. It was based on my anger at the music industry which was misplaced. I will tell you one thing, after we said “okay we might get back together”, Jarvis looked at me and said "Hey Rob can you play drums still?" and I go "I don't know" so we went down to Night Demon’s clubhouse and he locked me in with Dusty’s drum set. Whatever you write you gotta give Night Demon at least 50% of the credit for getting us back together, because if it wasn't for Jarvis we wouldn't have done this, and if it wasn't for them letting us borrow their practice room and Dusty's drum set, it would have never happened. Also, seeing Night Demon play live and seeing how fantastic they were, it just kind of gave us a lot of energy and a lot of confidence. But make no doubt. Right here, by the Bible I swear on it, the main reason we got back together, and this is what I really believe in my heart: I feel that so many people liked our band, and so many people want to see us play, that I felt it was selfish of us actually not to go out for people that come up and say “your band saved our lives.” It’s hard for me to believe that has happened, but people have said that. People this weekend said “your band changed [my] life” and I'm thinking, “what, did you shave your mustache in the middle?”
Do you have any plans to tour?
Baker: No, but we're looking at selected dates and things like that and maybe various festivals, but we're not gonna go out and do a regular slog around the United States, or Europe. It’s really not feasible for us to do that at this point in time. We are booked at Keep It True, and some other things are kind of in the works, but I can't really say yes or no about any of that stuff. As soon as things are finalized and anything comes up, we'll definitely have it out there so people will know about it.
Garven: We had an interview last night with a magazine in Poland and the guy asked me if we're going to play in Poland and I said “I would like to play in every country on earth.” I'm not sure that can happen but I mean, we told Jarvis and Oliver “No, no, no,” about Frost and Fire and Keep It True, and now we’ve said yes. So I think they woke a sleeping giant.
Going back to those interviews in the years after your demise.
Garven: That was a suicide, not a demise.
One thing that I saw the band was worried about, was the effect of cigarettes on Tim’s voice and the other night your voice was perfect, Tim. It was as awesome as it's ever been on the records. Are you still smoking?
Baker: Oh, god no! You gotta remember those interviews are from 20 years ago, man. I can't even remember the last time I had a cigarette. It's been decades so, that's just hilarious.
Garven: We’re actually making some of the band members smoke so they can sing backup vocals more like Tim. I'm amazed. [People] say Tim, sounds better than he sounded on the record, and I think that's really cool, because Tim was always like the Elvis in the band. He didn't necessarily start the band, or he wasn't the coolest guy in the band but he was the guy that everyone loved
Baker: Or hated.
Garven: I want you to know that too, that for years people kept calling Tim and me and they'd say "Hey can we get together without the other guy?" and we'd say no. And they'd call Tim and say "Hey you wanna come over here and we'll find another band and you just sing with them?", and he said no. Then that guy once called me from Greece and he said "You come over here and we will put you in hospital", and I think he meant they'd give me hospitality, and I said no and he said "you can sleep with our wives" and this is true a 3 o'clock in the middle of the night phone call and I said “NO.”
Baker:...But you meant yes.
You didn't want to go sleep with those Greek wives?
Baker: Well, it hasn't been booked yet...
Garven: I'll tell you another funny little story. When me and Tim were at [Keep It True in Germany] at the end of the night, we're at the back of the building and everything was locked up, all the lights were off and there’s like 10 guys, all in leather jackets with chains, and they're all kind of drunk, bumping their chests against each other, right? I look at Tim and I go "This could be either really good, or be really bad depending on how it turns out, right?" So we walk up to these guys and they turn around and the guy points and goes "Tim Baker!", and the other guy says, "Robert Garven!”, and they start singing “Frost and Fire”. By the time we got inside the building, I looked at Tim and said “This is crazy.” Everyone over there knew us. They knew who we were. We couldn't even walk across, to go get a beer or go like 100 feet without being stopped by every person like "sign my jacket" or, "can I take a picture of my wife and you,” and "here's a flag we brought from Amsterdam with your picture on it because we knew you were gonna be here.”
I don't think it shocked us because all of us always thought the band did some great music, but the amount of attention that people have been showering us with is quite shocking. I won't say we're perplexed, but we're like amused a little bit. Not in a bad way. We're amused like “wow.”
What else can you say about Jarvis, how’s working with him been?
Garven: All metal all the time.
Jarvis Leatherby: It’s true that [bootleg stuff] has kept the band alive. But now that the band is back, we're trying to push our own official merchandise which the band deserves, and I think I have good taste as far as the classic metal look and the underground’s concerned. I wouldn't put this on if I thought it was gonna suck. I knew the band was going to sound great, and that's why I was confident doing so, but also you gotta think about what the fans want and the merchandise and, no discredit to these guys at all because they're hip and they're cool, but most bands that get back together when they're 60 years old, the album art or the merchandise that they're rolling out is very modern and current and not what the fans want either. They think they have to be more current and more hip and more with the time and it comes out really bad. I'm here to make sure that does not happen.
Baker: Another thing about him, since we're talking about him right now. Like Rob said earlier, we're playing together, we're working together, and thank god for Jarvis, he's our co-pilot. He knows what he's doing, he's a great musician, great performer, great businessman, he's a total professional. He's been doing this for a long time. And we're lucky to be a friend of his and to be working with him. It was really cool the other night, he brings a lot of energy that us old guys don't really have, he's a fireball. It was an awesome experience and an honor being able to play with him.
Leatherby: I feel the same way though. Growing up in this town there was a lot of great hardcore punk bands but there was one metal band and being a metal kid it was all about Cirith Ungol, always. It's funny though, you couldn't go to a thrift store without finding Frost and Fire in the dollar bin, .and six months ago I was down in LA and there's Frost and Fire on the wall at Amoeba for eighty bucks. It's just crazy. My job as manager of the band is just to protect the legacy of the band and not make any missteps in that. Because the legacy is already there, all I have to do now is just hold that and that's like really important for me, that's my main goal.
Garven: Also, I gotta put him on the spot right here. We have some great merchandise but I want a Cirith Ungol t-shirt as cool as the red night demon t-shirt, which is the best t-shirt I've ever seen in my life.
Leatherby: Alright, we'll make one.
Garven: Do you know about that 'Planet Of DOOM' movie coming out?
No, I don’t
Garven: Okay, there's a movie from back in the 80s, I don't know if you ever saw it, it was kind of animated with a bunch of...
Leatherby: He knows the movie.
Wait, ‘Heavy Metal’, the movie?
Garven: Yeah, there’s a bunch of new younger artists that are doing something similar, it's not going to be exactly similar, but its somewhere on that same theme with a bunch of different artists and each one's going to have a section, and they're gonna have bands playing heavy metal music in the background. They actually approached Tim and wanted to use some of our music and turns out they moved our name to the top, they had like 10 other bands on there and they put us at the very top.
Baker: Well, they told us their movie is called ‘The Planet Of DOOM’, so they wanted to use “Doomed Planet.” It just kind of worked out for the best. David Paul Seymour, one of the artist guys that did part of the movie, he did the Night Demon shirt we were talking about and also did our King Of The Dead shirt, and I don't know when it's going to come out, but there's a big kickstarter campaign and they're working on it right now so maybe next year, it'll be out.
Leatherby: It's going to look killer. It's the same guy that did that last Conan video, I don't know if you saw it, but it's really good, man. A lot of different artists working on it.
You're working on new material, can people expect a new record?
Leatherby: Don't expect anything. There's some stuff but we're just taking it easy. I can definitely feel that these guys are itching to try some new stuff and the cool thing is that we rehearsed in the recording studio where all the albums were recorded. It's still a functioning studio but it's not in business, so these guys have a great relationship with the owner and nothing has changed in there since the 70s when it was built, so the whole vibe is there, and I definitely think it's the perfect place to do it. We just don't want to start the rumor that there's a new record coming out.
Baker: We don't wanna make anyone think there will be a record out next year. We're definitely gearing towards maybe doing something in the future, but we're just going along, and writing stuff, and we'll see how it goes.
Leatherby: But for the time being, there's going to be awesome shows, festival shows around the world and around the country. The merchandise is rolling out and there will be some reissues of the classic records with some extra stuff so everything is good. Everything is where it needs to be.
Garven: In four interviews I've already said we'll have an album out next year... But here's what we didn't talk about, we have a bunch of old songs that we've never recorded and Tim’s written quite a few sets of really good lyrics all on the same theme of Paradise Lost, which are actually so fantastic, and then there's a BMW commercial… That’s a joke….
Iif you can wait 25 years to reunite and play a show why would you rush to make a new record?
Leatherby: It took 11 years for the first album to come out!
Garven: What I do promise is if we have another record out, it'll be along the lines of King Of The Dead, where the band has complete say of what's going on. Not to put down any producer that worked on the albums, but after we've gone through that experience, back then we were forced to do stuff because of money obligations and I think this time around, once again, I think it allows us to actually control [the album].
Baker:- Here's the bottom line, there's some stuff on [Paradise Lost] that's some of the best stuff we ever did. Paradise Lost, it sounds better than all the other records sonically. It was just the way it was done, with the circumstances surrounding it [which we disliked], which are well documented. We want to be positive about it, because like I said, they did such a fantastic job re-releasing it, it sounds fantastic. It sounds even better than it did when it was released, so we're really proud of it, and I know that they are too. I was just looking at it before I got on the phone with you and it's just a fantastic package of stuff.
Garven: I can't believe how well Patrick Engel remastered the vinyl and Bart Gabriel remastered the cd version. How do you bring better sound out of something that's already been done well? I’ve listened to both of them quite a bit and compared to the original album and the cd, it feels like there’s a lot more life to it and then I look at the booklet and there's a lot of the old pictures. At first I didn't like the picture of us smiling because we're Cirith Ungol we're supposed to be unhappy and angry all the time
Garven: But I think the smiling picture is actually funny. That is the only time we’ve ever laughed though.
After all the years and actual blood and iron you guys have put into this band, what do you want Cirith Ungol’s legacy to be?
Garven: A BMW commercial.
Baker: As far as legacies, that was already set because we hadn't done anything for 20 years. It was kind of already there, whether good or bad. But it doesn't make any difference because we're back and better than ever and pushing towards the future. I just want our legacy to be, “hey these guys did some good stuff, they did it the best they could do it,” and I hope people enjoy it. The main thing is, a heartfelt thanks to all the fans all over the world who supported us and contacted us and showed us a bunch of love all these years. That's the only reason why we're doing this right now and it's the only reason why we even thought about maybe possibly getting back together and playing, because of the fans and the support over the years all came to a head here in the last year and we're really happy about it. We want to thank them from the bottom of our hearts and tell them we love all of them.
Leatherby: I will say from a fan’s point of view. I am a fan and that's why I wear the shirt on stage. I'm not trying to pretend like I'm part of the original band, it's the legacy. These guys were doing stuff that's just way ahead of their time and I understand why people did not get it at the time, I can see that, and it's definitely unique. The band's unique. The sound is unique, everything about it is unique. Rob’s drumming is very, very unique. Like Tim's voice, it's the same. The way Jerry played lead? You gotta remember, heavy metal wasn't really even a thing. These guys were doing it in the 70s, Iron Maiden wasn't even heard and these guys were already here in Ventura listening to like, Sir Lord Baltimore, and Grand Funk and B.O.C. It's just good to have the great white buffalo back again. It's not something that people thought would ever happen including the people involved. A lot of rumors even around town, people would tell me "It sucks that TIm Baker died". Uh, he's not dead.
Baker: I've heard that online too.
Leatherby: Things like, “oh, there's only one original member left.” Totally not true. So obviously, this is a good time for the band to be doing everything and like Tim said, it's all about the fans. Its evident, the fans want it and if there's a demand for it, and we're not gonna saturate it. The band’s not going to go out on tour. You see bands like Manilla Road? Those guys kept touring and still do and Manilla Road never stopped. Mark [“The Shark” Shelton] continues to make music, he puts out an album a year, he's a super cool guy, and he's a road dog. That's the path that those guys are on and I'm thankful that that's working for them. But as far as this band goes, every time Ungol plays you're gonna want to go if you have the opportunity, because it's not like you're gonna be able to see the band next week.
Garven: That'd be a rare occasion. You did ask what our final legacy should be, and I think one of the themes we used to put on a lot of our letters we mailed out sums up the band completely to me, “A churning maelstrom of metal chaos descending.”
Garven: Cirith Ungol is building a wall.
Baker: A wall of metal!